The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust and the preservation movement in Oak Park lost a dear friend this year with the passing of John Thorpe. A noted architect, Trust volunteer and Wright devotee, Thorpe was one of the original group of preservation-minded volunteers credited with saving and restoring Wright’s Oak Park Home & Studio. During the restoration of the Home & Studio, Thorpe helped write the book on restoration of architecturally significant homes.
A resident of Oak Park, Thorpe put those techniques to task in the restoration of his own home, the John Van Bergen-designed Mary Greenlees Yerkes House, which is included on this year’s Wright Plus walk and offers participants a glimpse into Van Bergen’s style and serves as an example of sensitive restoration and preservation.
Architect John S. Van Bergen was born in Oak Park in 1885 and grew up on Fair Oaks Avenue in a Victorian home. As a young boy, he watched Wright’s William Fricke House being constructed in the neighborhood. Architect Brian De Vinck, the Wright Plus researcher on the Yerkes House, said Van Bergen was very much influenced by Wright and his Prairie style.
“He was born in 1885,” De Vinck noted, “the year the first steel-framed skyscraper was built here in Chicago. Van Bergen was never schooled in the classics. It was always modernism for him.”
He began his career in Oak Park, where he worked as a draftsman for Wright and William Drummond. The Yerkes house was based on one of Wright’s design for a fireproof house that cost $5,000, which was published in the Ladies Home Journal. Yerkes is the third of 15 fireproof houses designed by Van Bergen.
After World War I, he moved to Highland Park, where he developed his own take on the Prairie style. “The landscape designer Jens Jensen was a dear friend,” De Vinck said, “and Van Bergen’s work became more naturalistic. His masterwork of this period is the Braeside School in Highland Park.”
After 25 years on the North Shore, Van Bergen moved to Barrington, where he bought land and developed a series of homes in a more mid-century modern style. He and his wife moved to California in 1954, where he died in 1969.
The Yerkes Family
Mary Greenlees Yerkes was a widow who commissioned Van Bergen to design her home in 1912. Her husband worked for the Sanborn Map Company prior to forming his own firm, which provided the fire insurance maps for the Chicago World’s Fair.
Yerkes and her adult daughter, Mary Agnes, moved into the home in 1913. Van Bergen included an art studio in the home for Mary Agnes, who, after graduating from OPRF High School, attended several art schools, including the Art Institute of Chicago, where one of her classmates was Walt Disney.
Mary Agnes eventually married, moved to California and developed quite a following for her en plein (open air) paintings created in the nation’s national parks.
The fireproof house plan employed by Van Bergen rethought single-family architecture in an attempt to keep construction costs down according to De Vinck.
“Architects at this time were trying to improve on the average American house,” De Vinck said. “This style is inexpensive because it’s basically a center block construction with two boxes stacked on top of each other. Adding corners adds costs and complexity. The appendages to the Yerkes House are simple add-ons without a full basement underneath.”
Angela Whitaker, Wright Plus coordinator, noted that Thorpe won an Oak Park Historic Preservation Award for his restoration of the house in 2002. She said some of the exterior-design choices are unusual.
“The first- and second-story windows have different muntin patterns,” Whitaker said. “On the first floor, the horizontal muntins line up with the trim detail on the interior of the home. The exterior is horizontal, dark-stained cedar clapboards up to the second-story window sills, with stucco above.”
De Vinck believes that the Yerkes House remained largely unaltered due to circumstances and luck.
“Mary Greenlees Yerkes stayed in the home until 1919,” he said. “When the third owner passed away, the daughter rented it out to four or five families, one of whom eventually purchased the house. Because it was a rental for so long, there were no major renovations to the house. One of the remarkable things is that no one significantly altered the house.”
When Thorpe purchased the home in 1992, he had a lot of deferred maintenance to take catch up on. Windows weren’t properly sealed, the living room ceiling sagged, and the kitchen had never been modernized.
De Vinck said that Thorpe put into practice a lot of the concepts he and his colleagues pioneered while restoring the Home & Studio.
The original kitchen sported cast terrazzo flooring and cast concrete countertops. Thorpe kept the original features and replicated the flooring, countertops and cabinetry when he renovated the kitchen space to bring in modern appliances.
Many of the original features remain. De Vinck noted that all of the first-floor light fixtures are original, as is the signature Van Bergen safe, this time built into the rear of the fireplace. Also original are the bi-fold doors between the living room, dining room and veranda.
Van Bergen experimented with a system for cooling the house naturally, using a system of grilles and vents to try to create a convection loop for cooling the house. He also tried to make the most of the home’s space, creating five foot deep storage drawers on the stair landing leading up to the second floor art studio.
A fitting end
The current homeowners have lived in the house since purchasing it from Thorpe in 2010. De Vinck revealed that when Thorpe passed away earlier this year, they adopted his cat Da Vinci, who is, by all accounts, very happy to be home again.